Police investigating one of Yorkshire’s most famous unsolved mysteries are to exhume the remains of an unidentified woman whose body was found at a beauty spot more than 30 years ago.
Detectives at North Yorkshire Police have been given permission to disinter a woman whose naked body was discovered at a roadside near Sutton Bank in 1981.
By removing the body from its grave at Malton Cemetery, they hope to obtain a DNA sample which could help identify the woman and provide the major breakthrough they need to find out how she died.
The case was officially recorded as an “unexplained incident” by the Home Office in 1981, but detectives are understood to be investigating the possibility that she was murdered.
The exhumation, which has been approved by a coroner, is the most significant development yet in a campaign to identify eight unnamed bodies that were found in North Yorkshire between 1981 and 2008.
All eight cases were featured in the Yorkshire Post four-part Forgotten Victims series, which was published last September.
The recent publicity is understood to have led some people to approach police to ask whether the Sutton Bank body might belong to one of their relatives.
Experts have been assessing the cemetery site since early November to determine the best way to disinter the woman’s remains.
Plans for the exhumation will be formally announced today and the exercise is expected to take place within the next two months, probably at night, and is expected to take less than 24 hours.
The Sutton Bank mystery, which became known as the “Nude in the Nettles”, began on the morning of Friday, August 28, 1981.
Police in Ripon received a call from a well-spoken man who refused to give his name for “national security” reasons but told them: “Near Scawton Moor House you will find a decomposed body.”
Officers found the woman’s remains between two small conifer plantations, to the side of an unclassified road leading from Sutton Bank to the villages of Scawton and Rievaulx.
The woman was 5ft 2in, aged between 35 and 40, and may have been a mother. She appeared to have short dark hair and there was evidence that she had broken her right ankle years before.
A Home Office pathologist estimated the body had been there for up to two years.
Police made numerous appeals in an attempt to identify the woman, and enlisted scientists and a television company’s make-up department to create a wax reconstruction of her head.
The tactic helped officers trace 164 missing women, but no-one could name the Nude in the Nettles. She was buried at Malton in 1983.
When speaking to the Yorkshire Post in September about the unidentified bodies review, the head of North Yorkshire’s major crime unit, Detective Superintendent Lewis Raw, talked about the possibility of an exhumation if a coroner would give consent.
He said: “The exhumation work itself is a very complex procedure because, clearly, we want to make sure it involves the minimum disturbance to surrounding graves.
“It also requires close co-operation and collaboration between people in very different roles, ranging from the police to the town hall. We also need to be mindful of the timing. If we are going to the graveyard, we have to be mindful of the impact it might have on other people going to the graveyard.”
The move has been welcomed by retired Detective Chief Superintendent Strickland Carter, who led the original investigation.
He said: “I think it is a great idea because DNA analysis was not available when we did our investigation. We would have done it on the spot if we could.
“It was a mysterious case and it would be a great comfort if they could establish who it was.”
Detectives are following new leads in three other cases as a result of the Forgotten Victims series.
Yorkshire Post readers came forward with suggestions about the identity of a man found dead on grouse moors close to Colsterdale in 1997; a man whose body was seen floating at Naburn Lock near Selby in 2003; and a woman whose remains were found close to Penyghent in 2004.